Toys Relieve Children's Distress
On February 6, 2023, two 7.8 magnitude earthquakes struck Turkey and neighboring Syria, killing more than 50,000 people. The destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes and unthinkable death tolls dominated news coverage, with little mention of the mental ramifications for child victims of the disaster. Research undertaken by UNICEF places 5.6 million children at the scene of the tremors, living in affected provinces, when the earthquakes struck. Of these child victims, approximately 700,000 endured displacement from their homes, relying on tents and other temporary sites for refuge. Post-disaster, toys have played a critical role in easing the distress of children and providing comfort to traumatized young victims. Media outlet Al Jazeera highlights how toys relieve children’s distress after natural disasters and other traumatic events.

Stories from Child Survivors

Al Jazeera investigated the role of toys in alleviating children’s distress in the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes. Al Jazeera interviewed 8-year-old Elif who resided in Gaziantep, Turkey, the epicenter of the earthquake that occurred on February 6. Like thousands of other children, the quake left Elif traumatized and in fear of aftershocks. But, she took comfort in a doll that she grabbed from her home the night her family fled the earthquake. “This doll helped me fall asleep while I was afraid of all the aftershocks that lasted for weeks,” Elif told Al Jazeera.

Similar to Elif, the earthquake in February 2023 displaced 8-year-old Eymen and his family and pushed them to live in a car for a number of days following the earthquake. His mother told Al Jazeera that he has carried a toy car around with him ever since — a remnant of the only place where he felt safe.

The stories of Elif and Eymen are more than anecdotes. The stories confirm that, while toys cannot fix such unprecedented trauma, they offer comfort to those with minds too young to cope with the mental and emotional stress of such atrocities.

The Psychology

Clinical psychologist and disaster trauma expert, Zeynep Bahadir, told Anadolu that toys can “work as therapy” for child victims of natural disasters. Likening toys to words, Bahadir recommended that child victims play with toys related to the disaster in order to “digest the situation.” Evidently, in need of stability and comfort, children like Elif and Eymen rely on playtime to manage the distress of an unexpected crisis.

Solidarity Through Sport

On February 27, 2023, Besiktas fans made a heartwarming contribution to relief efforts in their Turkish Super Lig fixture against Antalyaspor. As the stopwatch reached four minutes and 17 seconds, officials paused the match occurring in Istanbul so that fans could shower the pitch with thousands of stuffed toys for the children impacted by the Turkey-Syria earthquake that initially occurred at 04:17 a.m. on February 6. The gesture aimed to provide emotional and mental support to children impacted by the disaster via toys and moved millions of viewers watching from around the world.

Long-Term Implications

Six months after the initial shocks, survivors are still grappling with the aftermath. The British Red Cross has explained that “while the immediate physical danger has stopped, […] the road to recovery for the 17 million people affected is extremely long.”

This explanation is solidified by statistics. The World Health Organization reported in May 2023 that Turkey and Syria have faced more than 30,000 aftershocks since the initial earthquake in February 2023 and 1.6 million people remained displaced, living in temporary settlements, as of June 2023. Evidently, survivors are feeling the impact of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes far beyond the initial quake on February 6.

Looking Forward

With victims’ homes, families and access to schooling destroyed in an instant, the IFRC has described the situation as a “mental health ticking time bomb.” While toys relieve children’s distress, for many of the 6.2 million children affected by the Turkey-Syria earthquakes, mental health support is needed now more than ever if the psychological ramifications of the worst earthquake in modern history are to be rectified. UNICEF is committed to providing mental health support to displaced children and families but a great need still exists for further support in this regard.

Imogen Townsend
Photo: Flickr